Cycling and Recycling on the Best Sellers List

Comics Theory

The paperback graphic books (a weird term for comics, but it’s better than “graphic novel”) section of the New York Times Best Sellers list for the first week of February is topped by Marjane Satrapi’s first part of Persepolis (The Complete Persepolis, parts I and II, sits at number 8). The English translation appeared in 2003-05, the book made into a movie in 2007, and yet the piece still makes frequent appearances on list. Art Spiegelman’s Maus (serialized in Raw magazine from 1980-1991) and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (2006) also pop up frequently, moving up and down, on and off the list. All three are memoirs, frequently cited examples of excellence in the comics medium and, specifically, the graphic novel genre.

Print and E-books on the Best Sellers lists, on the other hand, are largely recently or have recent surges in popularity because of, for example, the impending release of a movie adaptation. Nicholas Sparks’ Safe Haven (2010) is up top this week—a movie version is coming out this year, as per recent news (erm, Wikipedia) and the 2012 release of a tie-in cover.[1] Last week the list was led by A Memory of Light, apparently the 14th and last book in a fantasy series that was released January 8th of this year.

Wading through Best Sellers archives is tedious work (and, for some unknown reason, accompanied by ads telling me “How to Write a Christian Book”[2]), especially because for weeks at a time there seems to just be a rotating collection of books that cycle through the top five. These books are frequently released by popular writers like Sparks, Janet Evanovich, David Baldacci, John Grisham, Nora Roberts, etc.–books advertised on NYC subways with little review clips from People magazine or some other mass-market author. – It’s not like these are books written (“written”) by said authors years ago—not popular “classics” like, say, Robert Ludlum’s Bourne Trilogy. Rather, these are quickly produced beach reading books spat out at the behest of publishers and bank accounts. These books are disposable reads that will show up in used bookstores for fifty cents in a couple of months. It’s the same thing in the hardcover section, the mass-market section (predictably), over and over the same books are purchased en masse, consumed, and (presumably) discarded.

I don’t expect to see Susan Sontag’s Illness and its Metaphors showing up on the list; I’m not delusional enough to assume that such books ever had wide appeal outside of academic/intellectual circles. It’s not like As I Lay Dying or To Kill a Mockingbird—true 20th century fiction classics—are showing up on these lists.

But neither are The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion or Gilead by Marilynne Robinson—books published in the years when Persepolis was being translated and released. These books are undoubtedly better than anything a Harlequin writer can poo out, and yet they haven’t been given any second thoughts so long after their release.

It’s undeniable that Persepolis and Maus are better books than Robinson’s or Didion’s (even though I enjoyed those both). They’re both classics in their own rights, and Satrapi’s book remains relevant in the never-ending political and human rights catastrophes in Iran. But why has the audience for these books not exhausted itself? If it’s the subject matter that attracts readers, why haven’t other comics discussing mass tragedy, namely Joe Sacco’s incredible Safe Area Gorazde (2002), not garnered the same attention?[3]

I’m not talking here about underground comix or self-published stuff, but outside of Marvel and DC the bestselling comic publishers are rarely even the “big names” in alternative comics (Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, Knopf Doubleday’s division Pantheon). Maus and Persepolis are, of course, notable exceptions (both Pantheon). But here’s a breakdown of the publishers on the bestsellers list:

Second on the list is Drama, a children’s comic published by Scholastic[4]. Third and fourth are Walking Dead anthologies (Image Comics), fifth is Maus Vol. 1 (Pantheon), sixth is Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (Mariner Books), seventh is a DC comic[5], eighth is The Complete Persepolis, ninth is the complete Maus, and tenth is another YA comic by the same author as Drama (also Scholastic).

Of the top ten graphic books, there are six different publishers, four books that are the first parts of books and their accompanying anthologies, and six original creators (I’m counting Robert Kirkman’s collaborators on The Walking Dead comics along with him).

What’s going on here? The Times, for all of its thorough counting—apparently including indie bookstores—doesn’t discuss the relatively unchanging nature of the graphic books list. They have little blurbs about the weekly graphic book bestsellers but these are basically just announcing what’s up top.

What does this say about the comics/graphic novels audience? First, it suggests that people keep buying Persepolis and Maus, and consequently that there’s some sort of ever-growing audience for comics. People who already like comics will have read or own these books, and so the likelihood is that the people purchasing them are newcomers. This is great—a wider audience is proof of Maus and Persepolis’ accessibility, stepping stones for those interested in the medium.

But there’s another side to that reality: people keep buying the books, and the number of people buying them for a second or third time is likely very, very small. So people are starting to read comics, but while there are a lot of new readers keeping Spiegelman and Satrapi at the top, the fact that other comics haven’t come in to take their place means that people aren’t necessarily continuing to read comics and aren’t spreading out to other ones.

It’s also possible that there are few comics as popular or ubiquitously praised and appealing as Spiegelman’s and Satrapi’s (and Bechdel’s). New releases are marketed to a specific audience–those inclined to read works in the medium–and so it’s hard to say whether visibility is a factor. But you’d think that people who want to read more comics would, well, read more comics, and that others would become popular too.

There are endless reasons that this can be happening, and without concrete numbers of how many copies sell each week it’s very difficult to see actual trends in purchasing/audience shifts. Plus, comics are expensive (even self-published ones, which is a subject I want to tackle in a later column) and it might just be that people reading comics want to know that what they’re paying for is reliably good material.[6]

It’s (really) unlikely, but perhaps readers who start with Maus and Persepolis go on to read indie and self-published comics instead of widely produced ones. Here’s to hoping that there’s some underlying reason for all of this and that it’s not just that people have one- or two-off experiences with the medium.

[1] Which, from the name, I can only assume is about Jodie Foster being stuck in a very secure room with the girl from Twilight. Am I getting this mixed up?

[2] I don’t know, put Jesus on the cover?

[3] The book earned its share of attention when it was published: it was a New York Times Notable Book in 2001, Best Comic of 2000 in Time Magazine (Way to go, Time, for saying “comic”!), won the first place Eisner Award in 2001, and was nominated for the Harvey Award that same year (those are both two of the major, major comics awards). There’s some sales figures up on Amazon (apparently #24,956 in Books is considered a best-seller?), but they only reflect purchases made through the site.[3a]

[3a] The New York Times describes their methodology for generating these figures:

“The sales venues for print books include independent book retailers, national, regional and local chains; online and multimedia entertainment retailers; supermarkets, university, gift and discount department stores; and newsstands. […] E-book sales for advice & how-to books, children’s books and graphic books will be tracked at a future date. […] Among the categories not actively tracked at this time are: […] required classroom reading[3a1][…] and self-published books.”

I’ve searched around for other lists, but there are few, if any, that seem as reliable and comprehensive as the NYT’s (Publishers Weekly won’t let me look the bestseller archive without subscribing). Amazon’s results are obviously only in response to what is purchased from the online retailer (but they do separate comics into sub-categories; the graphic novels category looks similar enough to the one from the Times [In order: The Walking Dead 2, […] Building Stories, The Walking Dead 1, Maus 1, Persepolis 1, […] Watchmen, Fun Home, and so on with some more Walking Deads, Persepolises, and Mauses.

[3a1] Do comics fall under this? Most classes that deal at all with comics/foreign life/holocaust experiences/etc. include Spiegelman’s and Satrapi’s titles.

[4] I’m not sure why children’s and young adult comics don’t have their own section, but I digress.

[5]“The battle between the Red, the Green and the Rot is coming to a head with Animal Man and his family caught in the middle.” Okay, I’m going to guess that Animal Man isn’t just a human (since male humans are animal men)—what is this, then? The Animorphs? What is Animal Man’s family made of? These are all easily answered questions but I’m not going to waste my time googling them.[5a]

[5a] Lazy.[5a1]

[5a1] That lazy.

[6] That said, along the more expensive comics (Chris Ware’s Building Stories, Craig Thompson’s Habibi, The Best American Comics 2012 [edited by Francoise Mouly]) are also $2 DC paperbacks.

Note: I can’t say with much certainty on what day these columns will be going up (weekly, though), but I’m trying to figure out how to set up an RSS feed or something to keep everyone updated. Is the newsletter (for which you can sign up on the left) working? You can also keep up with the Syndicate on Twitter (@sundaysyndicate) and Facebook.

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